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Environmentalists fight bank's plans for forest


About 20 members of the Sierra Club took their battle to preserve 163 acres of old-growth forest near Bowie to downtown Baltimore yesterday, where they demonstrated outside Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co. headquarters.

The hourlong protest was sparked by a preliminary approval for development of the land by the Prince George's Planning Board on June 9, according to Larry Bohlen, conservation chairman for the Potomac Chapter of the national environmental organization. However, the approval was not the final step in opening the land to residential development.

Mercantile is the trustee of the estate of W. Seton Belt, a banker and farmer who died in 1959. Mr. Belt bequeathed his "Home Farm" of 624 acres to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and St. Barnabas' Church in Washington, with the stipulation that the woods never be logged.

But in 1976 Mercantile and the church were able to have the Orphan's Court of Prince George's County release them from that restriction on the basis that it conflicted with the will's charitable intentions.

Despite that decision, Mr. Bohlen said Mercantile should honor the provisions of the will, particularly because it is representing a church.

"There is a moral issue involved with an institution that deals with morals -- the church," he said.

To drive home their point, pickets carried signs saying: "Honor Seton Belt's Will," and "Respect Your Customers," as they chanted, "Save the woods, honor the will."

John P. McDonough, a Prince George's attorney representing Mercantile, said the bank and the church are balancing conservation interests with the need to provide funds for the church's charitable efforts. Already, 250 acres of the 515-acre tract have been excluded from development, he said.

"It is not necessary or appropriate to shortchange the religious and social mission of the church," Mr. McDonough said.

He also said Mercantile and the church are willing to sell the land to a conservancy group, at a fair market price.

Prince George's County has said it could provide $1 million to buy part of the land and there is interest by the Western Shore Conservancy, a group that purchases land for conservation, but there have been no offers yet, Mr. McDonough said.

Moreover, price is likely to be an issue because Mercantile and the church want a market price, which would be higher than the farm and forest land values -- which is what the Sierra Club wants.

"They want to get the maximum profit instead of a reasonable price, which would allow them to honor Seton Belt's dying wish," Mr. Bohlen said.

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